Displaced lives

Last week marked the 74th anniversary of “Akcja Wisla” (Operation Vistula) which in 1947 saw the forcible deportation of over 140,000 Ukrainians from their ancestral homes on the eastern borders of Poland to lands in northwest Poland that were “recovered” from Germany after the Second World War. The move was made by the Polish Communist authorities of the time to undermine the armed resistance in the area to Communist rule by Ukrainian insurgent forces.

Ukrainians have had more than their fair share of being displaced or deported in recent history. Prior to the war, during the various campaigns to communize and collectivize Ukraine, the Russian Soviet state deported millions of Ukrainians to imprisonment and forced labour in Siberia. At the end of World War II, as a new border was arbitrarily established between Poland and the Soviet Union along what was called the Curzon Line, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians that had been living in eastern Poland were forced to relocate to the Ukrainian SSR, while similarly, hundreds of thousands of Poles that had been living in Western Ukraine were uprooted and shipped back to Poland.

I have a personal connection to these events in that my mother’s ancestral village of Devyatyr happened to lie right on the Curzon line. When the new border was established post-war at the end of 1945, some 1,500 Ukrainian inhabitants of this village found themselves on the Polish side of the border, a reality that both the Soviets and the Polish Communist authorities were determined to “correct”. The villagers were given but a few hours notice to vacate their properties and head east across the border into Ukraine.

Those that had horses and wagons, or carts, hurriedly packed as much of their household belongings as they could. Those not so fortunate, were forced to leave carrying only as much as they could on their backs. Less than a kilometre to the east on the Ukrainian side of the border stood what had been a small German colony called Einsingen. The war had understandably emptied it of its original German settlers, and many of the Devyatyr deportees found a new home there. Others found accommodation in the neighbouring villages and towns such as Potelycz and Rawa Ruska. Still other deportees resettled further east around Lviv, Ternopil, Ivano-Frankivsk and other areas of western Ukraine. My mother was not around to witness this tragedy, as she had been taken as an “Osterbaiter” into forced labour in Germany earlier in the war.

Einsingen was quickly renamed Devyatyr, but it was but a shadow of the original. Today, the population of Devyatyr stands at around 200. The original Devyatyr, called Dziewięcierz in Poland, never recovered from the deportations either, and its current population is just over 250. Most of the original buildings and structures belonging to the Ukrainian inhabitants there now lie in ruins.

Devyatyr had been a prosperous town with a long history stretching back over 500 years. Although primarily agricultural, there was a well-developed pottery industry due to rich local deposits of the right kind of clay. Historical record show that in 1800 there were no fewer than 17 potters working in the village. A 1900 census showed that there were some 325 households with a total population of 1883. 90% of these were Ukrainian, while the remainder were Polish or Jewish.

World War II devastated the town since the initial line of German attack on Russia in 1941 came right through the village. Even prior to the attack most of the young men in the village, over a hundred in number had been mobilized into the Red Army, and few would return alive. Shortly after the Germans occupied the town in June of 1941, a Soviet sniper shot and killed a German Major. In retaliation, the German forces rounded up and shot 36 innocent villagers at random, the youngest being 16 years of age and the oldest 72. The following year, the Germans began to conscript young Ukrainian men and women for forced labour in Germany. Among the 59 people from Devyatyr sent to Germany in the first round, was a nineteen-year-old girl named Parasia Gerun (my mother), and my 23 year-old uncle Danylo Gerun. They both managed to survive the war and eventually immigrated to Canada as DP’s (Displaced Persons). They were the lucky ones. Far too many of the Devyatyr inhabitants did not survive the ravages of war or its aftermath.

We should remember this sad history because it is being repeated again in Eastern Ukraine and Crimea, as well as in many other parts of the world including the Middle East, Africa and parts of Asia. Military conflict inevitably creates immediate and local death and destruction. However, perhaps just as damaging, are the long-term consequences for the innocent populations who are displaced from their ancestral homes and lands and whose lives are permanently turned upside down.